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Last edited 09 Feb 2018
Interview with Labour's Shadow Housing Minister
On 4 February 2016, Designing Buildings Wiki put some questions to the Labour Party’s Shadow Housing and Planning Minister, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods MP. As well as representing her Durham constituency in Parliament since 2005, Blackman-Woods has been part of the Shadow Ministerial Communities and Local Government team since 2011.
We followed Jeremy Corbyn's lead and asked for questions from Designing Buildings Wiki users which raised issues ranging from the controversial Housing and Planning Bill, to the scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes initiative.
Blackman-Woods asserted that as a 'uniquely defining British trait' Labour was fully supportive of home-ownership aspirations but questioned the ability of the market to deliver. She expressed hope that Labour Peers in the Lords would be able to tackle the 'very bad' Housing and Planning Bill, as well as criticising the fact that Tory budget cuts threaten the realisation of any energy efficiency plans, stating that Labour will 'lobby strongly' to have the Zero Carbon Homes initiative reinstated during the current Parliament.
Designing Buildings Wiki (DBW): Last month the government announced plans for directly commissioning SME developers as well as providing £1.2 bn for brownfield site development. This is part of their plan to build 200,000 starter homes over the next 5 years. What’s your take on these initiatives?
I believe that while starter homes can be part of the solution to address the housing shortage, they cannot substitute for critically needed affordable housing for people on average incomes to whom starter homes are too expensive. I do not object to building starter homes on brownfield land and support making the most of unused space, however, they are only part of the solution to address the housing shortage.
I worry that the definition for what constitutes ‘brownfield’ land is too vague and opens the door to ambiguity in planning and development. I am concerned about the government’s initiative that developers who build starter homes on brownfield land will be exempt from planning gain and that could lead to a deficit in resources for necessary infrastructure to support development.
DBW: During his leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn pledged to build a minimum of 240,000 homes per year. Governments have a long history of over-promising and under-delivering on housing figures, so how would Labour strive to meet these ambitious targets?
The Lyons Review [published in 2014] set out clearly in great detail how Labour would deliver on its target of delivering 200,000 homes by the end of 2020. Labour is currently formulating a new policy offer that would enable us to deliver homes needed across all tenures.
DBW: A recent Guardian article made the point that a would-be homebuyer earning the national average of £26,500 will find 91% of England and Wales beyond their reach. By the 2020 general election the situation could be even more severe, so what can Labour do to try and combat this?
Housing is a top priority for the Labour Party. It is for this reason that under Jeremy Corbyn we have a Shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Planning, John Healey, who sits in the Shadow Cabinet. We know that amongst British people there is a strong desire to own our own homes and to have the sense of security that brings - you could almost say that this is a defining British feature!
We fully support this aspiration and want to look at new and innovative ways to tackle the plummeting rates of home ownership. That is why the Labour Party is launching the Redfern Review, together with Taylor Wimpey, to look into falling home ownership, what the root causes are, and to widen the debate as to how we might combat this.
DBW: The Housing and Planning Bill is going through Parliament at the moment. What is your feeling on how this will proceed? Are Labour going to stand united against it?
As you’ll be aware, the Housing and Planning Bill finished the Report Stage and continued on to the House of Lords without many of our amendments being accepted by the Government.
Our colleagues in the Lords are now working to mitigate the most damaging aspects of the Bill where they can and we are already gaining a sense of support from the Liberal Democrats and cross-bench Peers, and I’m hopeful that on some amendments there’ll be support from Government Peers to tackle the worst aspects of a very bad bill.
We want to get rid of measures to end security of tenure for local authority tenants and stop the sale of high value council housing to pay for the extended Right to Buy to housing associations. Whilst we are not against starter homes, we do not believe they should be given absolute priority over the other forms of housing that might be needed locally.
DBW: Many countries and cities across the EU have a much better regulated housing market and a more successful record at delivering sustainable homes than the UK. Why do you think this is and what could we learn from them?
There are several reasons that the UK housing market differs so much from other EU countries. To begin with, the UK has both the highest rate of home-ownership of all EU countries at 65%. As I said, I think the strength of our desire to own our own homes is an almost uniquely British trait! Other EU member countries with strong economies have lower levels of home-ownership, ranging between 42% in Germany and 58% in France and the Netherlands.
One of the main problems why the UK has not been able to deliver more sustainable homes for its citizens is the lack of responsiveness of supply to demand in housing. While prices have risen over the past decade, supply has not kept pace. The supply of new housing has been greatly limited, partly influenced by the recession but more so by the ability of the market to deliver.
DBW: To meet our 2050 emissions targets, there will need to be a major drive for retrofitting of our building stock, some 90% of which is likely to still be in use. What would you like to see this government do about the energy efficiency of homes, considering they seem to be going backwards on the issue with the scrapping of the Zero Carbon targets?
I fully support investing in making homes more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is extremely important for lowering household costs, enhanced energy security, creating economic growth, combating climate change, and reducing the need for new infrastructure in rural areas. Even a small amount of spending in this area can make a huge difference. The North East has historically led the way in innovation in the green sector, which I would like to continue to see.
The previous Labour government in power was the first in the world to implement a legally binding requirement limiting carbon emissions. Since the Coalition government came into power in 2010 however, energy bills in Britain have risen at twice the rate of inflation – amongst the fastest in the developed world. It is really unfortunate that the Coalition government overturned Labour’s requirement to deliver zero carbon homes by 2016. We will lobby strongly in this parliament to have the zero carbon homes policy reinstated.
In 2014, Labour announced support for encouraging home insulation and a plan that would upgrade 5 million homes over 10 years to become more energy efficient. This plan sought to designate energy efficiency as a national infrastructure policy. Unfortunately, the Tories threaten the realisation of any such plans with even more budget cuts.
I would like to see our government reconsider their investments and redirect funds towards sustainable programmes, considering long-term benefits over short-term costs.
DBW: Are Labour going to appoint a team of appropriately qualified people to advise on policy for housing and the built environment?
Yes, for the first time ever Labour has a dedicated housing team. MPs in this team are constantly speaking with and meeting experts in the housing and planning fields, including local councilors, engineers, researchers, architects, planners and interest groups.
DBW: One of our sponsors, the architect Richard Rogers, a vocal supporter of Corbyn prior to his election, has written about the need to encourage urban densification through brownfield redevelopment, whereas the Adam Smith Institute has been calling for a review of the Green Belt policy. Where do you stand on this issue?
Labour has very clear policies on both brownfield and green belt issues. We think there should be a strong ‘brownfield first’ policy as when we were in government. Labour think the green belt should be protected, however, we also think the green belt should be the subject of local negotiation with communities via their local plan so they are able to alter green belt designations if they so wish. I think that makes us a truly localist party.
DBW: The housing shortage and property prices were major issues at the last election, and it’s a major concern for many people, particularly young adults, across the country.
How can Labour mobilise their collective efforts to influence the debate and take the government to task on the issue over the next few years, in the same way as they did recently with the issue of working tax credits?
Over the next few years, Labour will work actively to influence the debate and hold the Government accountable for housing policy. My colleagues and I will continue to raise the issue in the House of Commons during debates, pressuring the government to face up to the effects of their policies. We will continue to consult with experts, ensuring that we are well-versed on the key issues and look to develop innovative new solutions to the problems we face in the housing and planning sector.
We will also increase our public outreach to make sure we understand the housing needs of communities across the country and raise awareness amongst people about what impact the Housing and Planning Bill will have on their families.
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